Smart Cities to Wise Cities

stock image


China Today

July 2019

Download the PDF

According to the United Nations half of the world's population already lives in cities, with that proportion estimated to increase to 66 per cent by 2050. If we are to progress, we must manage our cities both efficiently and humanely. The InterAction Council of former leaders addressed the critical issue of urban planning for the future at its 36th Annual Plenary Meeting held in Cartagena, Colombia, in May 2019.

Smart cities are defined by the use of data captured by cameras, sensors, and other devices, then analysed by artificial intelligence to provide real time information to decision makers and citizens. It is a technological advance that many believe will make our cities safer, wealthier, healthier and more environmentally sustainable. But as with the use of all big data projects, there are also real concerns about citizen privacy and who will own and use the data collected by the wired cities of the future. 

My region of Latin America is the planet's most urbanised: In just two generations, from 1950 to 2010, the proportion of people living in cities in Latin America grew from 35 per cent to 85 per cent. How we manage our cities will largely determine the quality of life for most Latin Americans. At the Cartagena plenary meeting, we examined how the smart city concept was being applied to cities around the world. 

One of the most dramatic applications of data to the daily life of people is occurring in the city of Medellin, in my home country of Colombia. In the 1970s and 1980s, Medellin was best known as the home base of a notorious drug cartel. In recent years, Medellin has transformed into a smart city, so much so, that in a global competition organised by the Urban Land Institute for the Wall Street Journal, Medellin was voted as the world's most innovative city. It is the perfect place to examine the potential of technology to enrich urban life.

With a population of 2.5 million, Medellin is Colombia's second largest city. Beginning in the mid 2000s, Medellin decided to invest deeply in technology both to improve urban life and to cleanse itself from the stain of drugs. According to an in-depth study by the Inter-American Development Bank, as early as 2007 the city had decided on a strategy of “Digital Medellin.” 

The Internet of Things (IoT) technology is a network of physically connected devices that collect and exchange data, converging the physical with the digital, to produce real time information for citizens and decision makers to use. Medellin was the first city in Colombia to employ such a smart city development strategy. 

Medellin uses connected cameras and sensors in a variety of policy areas and services, but transportation serves as a ready example. The city installed 40 electronic traffic cameras that can detect infractions such as speeding, red light running, driving in pedestrian walk ways, etc. The system reads one million circulating plates daily. Beyond detecting infractions, the city has installed 80 visualization cameras that allow sight monitoring of the roads to detect accidents and traffic flows, allowing operators in the Transit Control Centre to respond to accidents in the fastest possible time. Information about traffic conditions is then relayed to drivers on 22 electronic messaging boards, allowing drivers to make informed and timely decisions about alternate route selection. Sensors installed on the road feed information to 600 traffic light intersections interconnected by a fiber optic broadband communication network owned by the city. The system also monitors 6,000 buses in the metropolitan area, supplying information for better planning of routes and frequencies. 

Improvements in traffic efficiency have been dramatic since the systems were installed, with highlights that include a 35 per cent reduction in the traffic accident rate for every 10,000 vehicles in areas covered by the photo detection cameras and almost 200,000 less hours of congestion in 2014 over 2010.

Medellin has emphasised a similar strategy of linked cameras, sensors, and data analysis in other policy areas such as security, with cameras placed in high crime districts; the environment, with environmental noise monitoring and early warning systems in emergency risk management; and for sustainable energy development, the city has created an electrical grid program.

According to Darío Amar Flórez, author of the international case study on Medellin innovation, “Smart city innovation is not only technological it must also be social.” The first objective listed in the Medellin smart city vision is to engage citizen participation and knowledge. Medellin has set up free Internet access zones and installed communication infrastructure in 48 community centres. The city has trained more than 100,000 citizens on how best to use this new technology. There is also a community portal where citizens can make suggestions to the mayor on how to improve city services. The Medellin vision is not only about top down experts using citizen information, it is also about bottom up citizen engagement to hold officials accountable and to suggest new ideas.  

In the same era that Medellin began to take the lead in Colombia as one community investing in smart cities, China was doing the same for the whole nation. China's five-year plan in 2011, highlighted smart city technology as one of China's main investment priorities so that today China is promoting half of the smart city projects in the world. It was after hearing about this intense Chinese activity in smart cities technology at its September 2018 Beijing plenary, that the InterAction Council put this important topic on its future agenda. China expects to double its investment in smart cities from US$30 billion in 2018 to US$60 billion in 2023. Smart cities are another area in which China is a world leader.

Like Medellin, the city of Hangzhou, for example, has created a City Brain, invented by the company Ali Baba, which uses cameras and sensors to examine traffic flows with links to traffic lights so that red lights turn green to help ambulances make their way to hospitals. Traffic police in Hangzhou arrive at incidents or accidents within five minutes. Shanghai has a Citizen's Cloud that aggregates data and provides easy access for people to use over a hundred city programs. China is also a world leader in mobile cashless financial transactions. In 2008, there were 17 million personal phones in China, today there are over a billion. In Beijing, phones are swiped for public transit fares, saving time in buying and collecting tickets. China has bet big on smart cities as one way to cope with the fact that it has one third of the world's cities with populations over one million.

The penetration of information technology in sensors and in all manner of physical objects like smart metres, solar panels in buildings, and personal devices like smart phones, combined with algorithms created by artificial intelligence able to show patterns in the data, has the potential to transform our lives and the cities in which we live. Many aspects of this transformation are profoundly positive. Thanks in part to the security cameras and systems installed in Medellin the murder rate per 100,000 people has fallen by 80 per cent since the early 1990s. To be a livable city, you must begin with a safe city, but there are obviously dangers as well with the control of such massive amounts of information. 

The way forward is to begin with a vision that makes the well being of citizens and their engagement in the process the starting point of investment. We have advanced from digital cities, when information devices were first introduced, to smart cities where these devices are networked, and the data analysed by artificial intelligence. Now we must move from smart cities to wise cities, where that technology is used to enhance well-being, a much more complete goal than the current concentration on technological efficiency alone.  

Andrés Pastrana was the President of Colombia from 1998 to 2002 and served as the Organising Chairman of the InterAction Council’s Annual Plenary Meeting in Colombia in May 2019.